Manitoba History: Three Manitoba Pioneer Women: A Legacy of Servant-Leadership

by Carolyn Crippen
University of Manitoba

Number 53, October 2006

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The pioneer women of Manitoba hold an important place in Canadian history. No record of our country’s past will be of greater interest or more inspiring than the record of their lives, if ever their lives are adequately recorded, as they should be. [1]

William J. Healy (1867-1950), the Provincial Librarian for Manitoba, wrote a tribute to the women of an earlier day (1806-1873) entitled, Women of Red River: Being a Book Written From the Recollections of Women Surviving from the Red River Era. The above statement appeared near the close of his book. The following article responds to Healy’s plea by reviewing records pertaining to the lives of three pioneer women in Manitoba who contributed to our moral imperative through their service, leadership, and tenacious spirit and are indeed, an inspiration. [2]

In the fall of 2001, I discovered a small book called Extraordinary, Ordinary Women that had been prepared by the Manitoba Club of the Canadian Federation of University Women. [3] The text included two-page vignettes about many Manitoba women, most of whom had not had much written about their lives. It was through reading these vignettes and pondering their portraits that I was introduced to Margaret Scott (1855-1931), Margret Benedictsson (1866-1956), and Jessie McDermott (1870-1950). Like other remarkable women of their day, they found ways to overcome social restrictions and prevailing attitudes of femininity through service and initiative in their communities. I was intrigued and started searching for other references about them. My research revealed a perspective unusual at that time: woman as leader. I wanted to know why and how this was accomplished. Although several historians had chronicled their life stories, [4-15] I studied their “service” as a platform for leadership, a special form of leadership, known as servant-leadership, named in 1970, approximately 100 years after these women lived. [16]

Servant - Leadership

Robert K. Greenleaf (1904-1990), a Quaker, and lifelong student of organizational dynamics and leadership, coined the term servant-leadership in a small thirty-seven page essay, The Servant as Leader, published in 1970. Within this essay Greenleaf discusses the characteristics of servantleadership: a strong ability to listen to self (reflection) and to others; a sense of empathy and care; a willingness to help heal/relieve the pain/suffering of others; awareness of one’s environment and the need to improve the status quo; persuasion through speech and action, as opposed to coercion; conceptualization or being a visionary; foresight or using one’s experience and wisdom to shape effective decision-making; stewardship—just doing for the sake of doing or because it needed to be done; commitment to the growth of others; and, building a caring community. [17]

Greenleaf defined the servant-leader as servant first. It begins with a natural feeling to serve others and society for the good of all. And, through one’s service a person is recognized as leader. Greenleaf (1970) wrote,

The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant - first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the least privileged in society; will he benefit, or, at least, will he not be further deprived? [18]

The Role of Women (1870-1930)

Even though the three women were born in different years during the 1800s (Scott in 1855; Benedictsson in 1866; and McDermott in 1870), there was a period of time in which their lives overlapped: 1870-1930. What were the expectations for women at this time? Adams explains that the Victorian Period (1837-1901) defined women as belonging to the private world of home and children:

A woman’s place was in the home. Domesticity and motherhood were portrayed as a sufficient emotional fulfillment. These constructs kept women away from the public sphere, but charitable missions began to extend the female role of service and Victorian feminism emerged as a potent political force. [19]

Some women were able to cross from the private home to the public sphere. The three women in this article were successful at doing so. Some women worked outside the home because they were single, or widowed, or needed to support the rest of their family and realized they had to work in offices, shops, and factories, hospitals, and schools in order to earn and manage their wages to survive.

Manitoba was strongly influenced by religion, beginning with the Roman Catholic Church and the Churches of England and Scotland (Anglican and Presbyterian) with the emigration of French and British settlers. Manitoba historian, Gerald Friesen, speaks about a major shift in the focus of the Protestant faiths in Canada and in Manitoba.

In the last decades of the century new currents altered the religious beliefs and the social perspectives of the Protestant churches … this new outlook, the “Social Gospel”, became an important influence in western Canadian life and the driving force in the development of a distinct western Canadian mission. The Social Gospel was the product of many intellectual currents. In an age when powerful evangelists crossed the continent with the message that God could provoke changes in the life of an individual, hope for such changes became widespread. [20]

Groups within the Presbyterian and Methodist faiths (between 1874 and 1884) created large churches and church organizations (Mission Bands, Ladies Aid Society, Women’s League) and worked with thousands of Canadian women, children, and youth to raise an awareness of social and public issues. The major Christian denominations were represented in Manitoba. The belief in responsibility to family, church, friends and the community at large was particularly important to women who felt morally obligated, justified, and motivated to become involved in church organizations.

During the 1880s and 1890s, voluntary organizations developed that provided women with contact, growth, and opportunity to discuss, question, and advocate for a better society. Issues of social reform included temperance, working conditions, and the poor and less fortunate. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) fought against the abuse of alcohol and the results of drunkenness: violence, poverty, family breakdown, and by 1891, the WCTU formally endorsed woman suffrage at all levels of government in Canada. During this time period, Margaret Scott, Margret Benedictsson, and Jessie McDermott were active participants and leaders within a culture of change in Manitoba.

Margaret Scott: Volunteer and Social Service Innovator

Margaret Scott (1855-1931)
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Scott, Margaret 1, N20783.

Margaret Ruttan Boucher Scott was born in Colborne, Ontario on 28 July 1855 and later moved with her family to Peterborough, Ontario. [21] Her mother died when Scott was eleven years old, and this was followed the next year by the death of her father. As a result, in 1867 she went to live with her aunt in Campbellford, Ontario. [22]

At twenty-two years of age, Scott married a prominent Peterborough, Ontario lawyer, William Hepburn Scott, Q.C., who was a member of the Ontario Legislature. [23] In 1881, at the age of twenty-five, Scott was widowed, and without financial resources. In order to support herself, she did clerical work in Peterborough, Ontario for the Midland Railway where she received $25 a month for sorting tickets. [24] Soon Scott was transferred to the audit office in Montreal, Quebec. After 2½ years of overseeing the work of thirty girls, she had a breakdown in health. Her doctor advised that she go west to a drier climate to recuperate.

Scott moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1886, and after regaining her health, she found employment in the city at the Dominion Land Office. Her typing was improving, but she did not know shorthand and asked the only person who was teaching shorthand, the court stenographer, W. F. Perkins to help her. He objected to teaching it to a woman. Scott was amused at his resistance, but she made her ambition to learn shorthand known to the boss, Mr. Heubach, who personally taught Scott—without charge. [25] An article in the Winnipeg Tribune stated, “By hard work she learned typewriting and shorthand and became recognized as the most proficient stenographer in Winnipeg.” [26] Scott then moved on to the law firm of Hough and Campbell, also in Winnipeg.

During this time Scott met Reverend C. C. Owen of the Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Winnipeg. Scott and Owen would kneel in prayer before their work began each Saturday. Scott wrote of this turning point in her life,

Mr. Owen prayed me out of office work. He wanted me to work altogether among the poor, but I loved my own office work and wanted my liberty and at first I was unwilling to give it up. However, when repeatedly the words came to me, “This is the way, walk ye in it”, I knew God was speaking to me and I gave up office work to help Mr. Owen among the unfortunates of the city. I didn’t lose my freedom, there was infinitely more. The office was all for self, one’s food, clothes, home and just a little margin left for God. There are wide free spaces when one stops thinking only of food and raiment. [27]

In 1897, Scott gave up her office job at the law firm and the security of a steady income and comfortable accommodations and moved to a small room in the Winnipeg Lodging and Coffee House, which was owned by the Holy Trinity Anglican Church. Writer Helena Macvicar said that this location was “a place where transients could get a cheap meal and board and where men out of work or in trouble could secure help.” [28]

Scott decided to accept no salary and relied on voluntary donations to exist and appears to have been influenced in her approach to not solicit financial support by both the Muller Homes and the Barnardo Homes for Immigrant Orphans, originally founded in England in 1866. As the years passed, and as Scott’s good works became known and supported, monies were received from governments, the city council, the Canadian Pacific Railway, the rich and middle class, and men and women from the grateful poor. [29] However, Scott, who always believed in living entirely by faith, would not allow her mission to be formally included in the Federated Budget. Scott was a daily visitor to the jails to assist those who were released to find work, lodging, financial and spiritual support. She spent many nights nursing sick women prisoners and even staying with a dying patient in the Winnipeg jail; Scott had no regular visiting hours, yet the jail wardens let her come and go as she pleased. [30]

Scott had no formal medical training, but often read into the night to gain the knowledge to help the sick and needy. She studied what was developed in other cities, nursing missions, public health departments, registered charities, and social agencies. Her good works were recognized in 1900, when a local bank manager volunteered a portion of his salary for a trained nurse to assist Scott in her work. In 1904, the attention, respect, and financial support from churches (Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist), influential citizens, and the City of Winnipeg, provided the finances for Scott to establish a nursing station at 99 George Street, Winnipeg, known as the Margaret Scott Nursing Mission. [31]

Staff of nurses on the front steps of the Margaret Scott Nursing Mission at 99 George Street, Winnipeg, no date.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Margaret Scott Nursing Mission, MG10, B9. Helena Macvicar, Margaret Scott: A Tribute, p. 16.

One of the new initiatives that began the following year was described in the Free Press newspaper, “Before the city had started welfare work among men seeking employment, Mrs. Scott had taken over a large back yard and supplied saws, axes and work, so that idle men might earn their bread” [32] and gain self respect through useful employment. This wood yard was eventually taken over by the city. Scott would go about the city first by streetcar and then on foot, making visits to boarding houses and homes. During these visits families were taught how to incorporate cleanliness into the home and how to treat common ailments, i.e., colds, flu, cuts, sprains, head lice, scabies, etc. Mothers were given instruction especially on child and baby care because of the high infant death rates at that time. It seems Scott delivered a form of health education to those immigrants and needy living in the heavily populated inner city of Winnipeg. One day while Scott was on her rounds, a man offered to give her a pony, which she gladly accepted. Later the same day, she met another friend who offered her a cart. So, she had her horse, Joe, and her cart to help her make her way through the city. The cart was usually filled with donated food and clothing which Scott gave to those she encountered in need. [33, 34]

Beginning in 1904, the city government made an annual organizational grant of $2000 and a yearly salary of $1,200 to the Margaret Scott Nursing Mission [35] and the provincial government directed a grant to the Mission as well. In 1906, Scott moved from the Winnipeg Lodging and Coffee House to the Mission to live. [36] Here she organized assistance for wayward girls, and in 1911, established a hygiene department in the Mission in response to Manitoba’s high mortality rate. The previous year, 1910, “every third death registered in Manitoba was that of a child less than a year old.” [37] Every child seen in the hygiene department program was monitored for a period of two years. By 1913, the facility had expanded from patient instruction on health care and hygiene with two nurses and 3,000 home visits to a staff of eight nurses and 30,000 home visits. Scott became a valuable asset to the Winnipeg Health Department and many doctors who worked with her because she continued to read and learn and maintained ongoing medical contacts.

Scott created The Little Nurses League in 1912, which was adopted by the Winnipeg School Board and extended to thirteen of the city schools. [38] The Little Nurses League taught schoolgirls about food preparation, hygiene and childcare, caring for baby brothers and sisters. One nurse’s comment is documented in the Provincial Archives: “This is what Mrs. Scott is always doing. She sees things that need doing, starts them properly going and then the right official body goes on with the work.” [39] By 1914, the Winnipeg Women’s General Hospital (WWGH) became affiliated with the Margaret Scott Nursing Mission. All nurses in training at the WWGH spent two months at the Margaret Scott Nursing Mission to gain experience in community nursing. Scott had high standards for herself and her nurses; her hard work was an example for others in the Margaret Scott Nursing Mission. Journalist E. Paterson described mission life:

The work of the mission continued to expand, the staff coping with epidemics such as typhoid (an illness which Scott developed) and influenza, with emergencies in both war and peace, to say nothing of depressions. The nurses cared for the chronically ill and emergency cases, expectant mothers and new babies. The mission on George Street was enlarged as the need for nurses increased. [40]

A 1921 article in Saturday Night titled “Canadian Women in the Public Eye: Margaret Scott” [41] describes a ceremony in which a new school located at the corner of Arlington and Alfred Streets in the North End of the City of Winnipeg, where she had served and nursed the downtrodden and needy, was named for Scott.

There was a graceful little function at the opening, the unveiling of the portrait of Margaret Scott, presented by the Board of the Mission that bears her name, a face of spiritual beauty and benignancy to brood over the children of the new school; on a brass plate below, the mainspring of her life set forth for leading. [42]

Scott was hospitalized and an invalid for over three months before she died in the Winnipeg General Hospital. She had worked right up until her death in 1931 giving forty-five years of service to her community. [43] The Winnipeg Tribune reported Scott’s death: “in testimony to the city’s loss” [44] that flags in the city flew at half mast, her funeral service was held at Holy Trinity Anglican Church. The newspapers of the day hailed Scott as the Saint of Poverty Row, [45] Winnipeg’s Angel of Mercy, [46] and the Florence Nightingale of Winnipeg. [47] Scott and the Margaret Scott Nursing Mission had pioneered in the social service works that today are considered essential. [48]

Friends in the city and province donated funds to erect a monument in St. John’s Cemetery to her memory and works. Her death notice in the Winnipeg Tribune stated,

Mrs. Scott’s influence was not that of money or of physical strength. It was an influence which permeated the whole atmosphere in which she moved and which cast a redeeming power over literally thousands of people with whom she came in contact in the long period of her service as ministering angel to those in want and despair. [49]

Scott’s life’s work was managing one of the most comprehensive home-nursing programs in western Canada. It included home visitations, individual assistance, services to address the needs of immigrants and newcomers to Winnipeg, training of nurses from the Women’s General Hospital in community service, teaching children how to care for their younger siblings, coordinating auxiliary volunteers who made linens, clothing, and bandages for patients at home and in the Nursing Mission, and creating neighbourhood clinics for the underprivileged. [50] Her Nursing Mission eventually became a City of Winnipeg Health Department operation after her death in 1931 and her ideas helped craft the nursing profession in Manitoba. Margaret Scott was posthumously awarded the Cosmopolitan Service Medal in 1932, and a ward was named in her memory at the Winnipeg General Hospital. The Margaret Scott Nursing Mission Scholarship for Public Health Nursing is still awarded annually to one or more students in the Faculty of Nursing, University of Manitoba. [51]

Margret Benedictsson: Journalist and Human Rights Activist

Margret Benedictsson (1866-1956)
Source: University of Manitoba, Elizabeth Dafoe Library, Icelandic Collection.

Icelandic settlers began arriving in the Red River Valley in October 1875. These immigrants stayed in three main areas—the fishing village of Gimli, the town of Selkirk, and the City of Winnipeg and they were eager to settle in to their new surroundings. In 1877, the Icelandic Society was founded in Winnipeg; reorganized in 1881, and renamed The Icelandic Progressive Society. [52] In 1881, the Icelandic Women’s Society was founded in Winnipeg. Its purpose was to help those in financial need and to provide support for the development of good citizenship among young and old alike. [53]

In 1882, the Canadian Women’s Suffrage Association was formed. Women’s organizations, such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U.), established in 1890 in Manitoba, joined the cause. These organizations believed and encouraged self-improvement through self-education. The women of the Icelandic community in Manitoba were champions of such beliefs. The Icelandic Women’s Suffrage Society was founded in Winnipeg in 1908; however, there were differences as noted by female historian Alison Prentice et al.

The Icelandic population remained isolated from the Anglo-Saxon majority by its different language and culture. A major distinction between the two communities was the role and status of women. The cultural, economic, and political participation of Icelandic women drew not only on a solid community base, but also on a long tradition of equal rights for women ... Also, under the society’s auspices a regular column, written by various Icelandic women, began publication on January 16, 1890, in the newspaper, Heimskringla. [54]

When Manitoba entered confederation in 1870, the Federal Elections Act stated that, “no woman, idiot, lunatic, or criminal could vote,” [55] only men. Women in the province began to demand the vote and were aided, in part, by one young immigrant woman, Margrjet (Margret) Jonsdottir (later Benedictsson) who was born in 1866, in Hrappsstaoir, Vioifdalur, Iceland. She was the daughter of Jon Jonasson and Kristjana Ebenesarsdottir and was self-reliant by the age of thirteen. [56] As a child she, “was possessed by wonder and admiration as she read the story of Jon Sigurdsson’s struggle for freedom” [57] and as a young reader, she immersed herself in articles and books about oppressed people, unhappily married women, and girls who wanted to break free from parental restrictions. [58] Benedictsson wrote,

Angry and distressed I read the laments of oppressed persons, unhappily married women, and the misfortunes of young girls. And it is this evil that aroused in men and in all honourable persons, a yearning to break down all the fetters that tie people to evil and distress, all fetters by whatever name we call them. [59]

Benedictsson’s parents immigrated to the Dakota Territory in 1877, to an Icelandic community, possibly the Mountain settlement, where she lived for four years. [60] She valued education and worked to put herself through grade school and attended Bathgate College in Bathgate, the Dakota Territory, for two years. [61] In 1881, Benedictsson moved to Winnipeg where she continued evening studies at the Winnipeg Central Business College, learning shorthand, typing, and bookkeeping. She also became involved with the Icelandic Women’s Society, which was staging plays and holding tombolas (a kind of lottery with tickets usually drawn from a turning drum-shaped container, especially at a fair or festivals) as fundraisers to pay school tuition for two girls to attend a Winnipeg convent school for a year. [62]

In 1893, Margret married Sigfus B. Benedictsson (1865-1951), a well-known writer, poet, printer, and publisher in the Manitoba Icelandic community. Sigfus presented public lectures in Winnipeg during 1889-1890 on the emancipation of women. [63] Sigfus and Margret were married in Winnipeg and became charter members in the first Unitarian congregation west of Toronto. The first Icelandic Unitarian Church was established in Winnipeg, 1 February 1891. The majority of Icelanders were members of either the Lutheran or the Unitarian Churches. [64] Unitarians encourage social improvement, individual freedom, tolerance, and a belief in the unity or oneness of God. [65]

On 2 February 1893, Margret Benedictsson gave her first lecture on women’s rights to the Winnipeg Icelandic community. [66] Together, the Benedictssons established a printing press in Selkirk, Manitoba, and in 1898 began printing the magazine, Freyja, which means woman. [67] It featured serial stories, biographical sketches of prominent people, poetry, literary reviews and a children’s corner. “Freyja also published lectures and letters.” [68] Kirsten Wolf, former chair of Icelandic Studies at the University of Manitoba, noted the importance of the creation of Freyja.

The Benedictssons’ contribution to the cause (provincial suffrage) finds its most concrete expression in the founding of an Icelandic women’s suffrage society in Winnipeg in 1908 and in the publication of Freyja (1898-1910), the only women’s suffrage paper published in Canada at the time. [69]

January 1907 issue of Freyja, a suffragist newspaper that Margret Benedictsson published with her husband.
Source: University of Manitoba, Elizabeth Dafoe Library, Icelandic Collection.

Margret Benedictsson became a well-known women’s suffrage speaker and organizer. Because of her daytime household duties and childcare responsibilities as a wife and mother, Margret usually lectured on women’s rights in the evening and pursued her writing late at night. [70] She took the famous American suffragette, Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) as her ideal; Margret read the works of Lucy Stone, [71] the head of the American Woman’s Suffrage Association, and also corresponded with Dr. Stowe-Cullen, the leader of the Ontario suffrage movement.

Margret Benedictsson often wrote stories under pen names. Three such stories (translated from Icelandic) are in Writings by Western Icelandic Women. [72] The articles and pen names are: “The Window” by Herold (1899), “They: A Biography in Few Words” by Herold (1901), and “The Messenger of Peace” by Bryhildur (1907). These particular stories reflect her personal concerns: human rights, women and their responsibilities, and poverty. These articles advocated political, social, legal, and economic equality for women. It appears that Margret Benedictsson was astute in utilizing “male pen names” for many of her articles with the knowledge that they would probably receive serious consideration from male and female readers.

Benedictsson urged the province to become involved in social welfare. She wanted to see a woman’s role expanded outside the family into the public sphere (i.e. provided opportunities for employment outside the home in shops, offices, and factories). She went so far as to encourage women readers to use “the weapon of love” to influence them to vote for a candidate supporting equal rights for women. For many years at the turn of the century, the Icelandic suffrage leaders were alone in carrying on a sustained campaign for women’s voting rights in Manitoba, [73] but historian Mary Kinnear clarifies the difference in Benedictsson’s approach,

Benedictsson’s inspiration was different from that of Manitoba “mainliners”. So was her religion and her ethnic background ... most of the leaders of the Canadian women’s movement were Methodist or Presbyterian, with a few from Anglican or other denominations ... Benedictsson shared one passion with the Manitoba suffragists - a belief in temperance. But her views on divorce, pacifism, and the need for women to be in all aspects of public life were generally more outspoken than theirs. [74]

She became the first president of the Icelandic Women’s Suffrage Society of Winnipeg, called Tilraum (translates as Endeavour), which she founded in Winnipeg in 1908. [75] Freyja ceased publication in 1910, when Sigfus Benedictsson “put a hold on all mail addressed to the journal and refused his wife access to the printing press,” [76] which he moved to Winnipeg from Selkirk. That same year, Margret divorced Sigfus. Mary Kinnear writes that the divorce rate in Manitoba was always less than 1% up until 1971, so it appears that Benedictsson made a bold, and perhaps courageous step, in seeking a divorce. [77] In 1910 a marriage could be dissolved only through an Act of Parliament, usually took a long time, was a complicated process, required proof—usually of adultery, and was costly —about $500. [78]

In 1912, with failing eyesight, she left Manitoba with her children, son Ingi, and daughter Helen, to live first in Seattle, then in Blaine, Washington. Benedictsson died on 13 December 1956, at the home of her daughter in Anacortes, Washington. [79] Icelandic historian Jonas Thor describes the contribution of Benedictsson:

In 1916, the government of Manitoba endorsed the vote for women, the first province in Canada to do so, and there is little doubt that her work contributed to this achievement. Although she concentrated on reaching her own compatriots, she fought for the rights of all Canadian women. The Canadian Suffrage Association invited her to attend a convention of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance in Toronto in 1909. [80]

In 1914, two years after Benedictsson had left Manitoba, the Manitoba Liberals endorsed the vote for women, and on 27 January 1916, Manitoba was the first province to grant suffrage after an historic third reading of the bill in the Provincial Legislature.

The oldest member of the house declared he had never seen anything like it in his life. Galleries were filled to overflowing with eager and excited women. Third reading was moved by Acting Premier T. H. Johnson, son of an Icelandic suffrage pioneer. [81]

It seemed fitting that a person of Icelandic descent supported the response to the motion. (The country of Iceland formally enacted suffrage in 1915.) Although this specific legislation for Manitoba women occurred after Margret Benedictsson had left the province, surely her spirit was present in the gallery that day.

Jessie McDermott: Teacher and Rural Community Builder

Jessie McDermott (1870-1950).
Source: Wilma Shirriff.

The last of the three women was a country schoolteacher and farmer. McDermott seems to typify the “rural pioneer woman” who taught in a one-room schoolhouse; who was a member of a large farming family; and who remained on the family farm until she was married. Some readers may wonder why this particular woman was included along with Scott and Benedictsson. I believe some explanation is in order before telling Jessie’s story. McDermott’s contributions were grass roots community building in the areas scattered around Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. McDermott may not have been as well known as Benedictsson or Scott who both lived in the City of Winnipeg. It is interesting that Robert Greenleaf noted that servant-leaders were not necessarily great or famous; these people just went about doing their work because they felt it would strengthen the good of their community. They did not seek recognition or fame, and often their efforts did not receive much attention. It is my belief that Jessie McDermott was such a person and her stewardship deserved to be included and recognized along with “the more famous” Benedictsson and Scott. McDermott’s contributions were certainly not on the grand scale as the provincial fight for women’s rights or Winnipeg healthcare (the influence of which spread in the west); however, the voices of those communities and children that were impacted by McDermott remain as a lasting testimony to her service.

Women considered education the key to improving their conditions. However, the idea of an educated woman was often ridiculed. In 1872, Dominion statistician George Johnson announced that the decline in the birth rate was the result of women who became educated and worked outside the home. Two different avenues for education were suggested: women could gain access to post-secondary education, which led to small numbers of women entering normal schools; or they could improve the conditions in the home by receiving practical training. The government reinforced and spread the predominant Victorian message of the time that “a woman’s place was in the home” through a domestic science initiative. Mary Kinnear noted that the purpose of education was limited, “An educated woman would use her experience mainly to be a better mother.” [82]

Much of the information related to the life story of Jessie McDermott was extracted from materials (personal papers/ notes) shared with me by Wilma Shirriff of Portage la Prairie, who is McDermott’s granddaughter. Shirriff was nine years old when her grandmother died. Included were items written by Shirriff and others penned by her mother Frances McDermott. Shirriff also forwarded the small book Tales from Bellemeade (circa 1904). These items have provided very personal and subjective accounts of Jessie McDermott’s life.

Jessie Isabel (Belle) Grant McDermott was born 10 June 1870 to Hugh Grant (1831-1908) and Ann Ross Grant (1840-1901) in Blythe, Ontario (in Bruce County). She was one of eleven children. In 1871, the family moved to Burnside, Manitoba to farm. A story “The Promised Land” was written around 1904 by Jessie McDermott about her family, the Grants, trip to Manitoba. One amusing and honest section stated, “They neared Fort Garry and the little girls inquired if they paddled in the Red River would their white stockings get dyed red.” [83]

The Grant family fought many hardships such as prairie fires and the death of three children, but maintained their strong religious faith. In Beside the Burn: Burnside Area History, mention is made of “Belle Grant” who was elected leader of Mission Band in 1899-1900, at the age of 29 years, and that her group made a quilt to raise money. Mission Bands were similar to Sunday school classes, only the group of children met during the week, usually after school, to study the Bible, sing hymns, and learn about missionary work in foreign countries. The leaders of Mission Band were young women or mothers of children in the local church. [84]

Wilma Shirriff wrote that Jessie McDermott was just barely five feet tall and weighed about 110 pounds, a tiny woman. “Even when I was a child she seemed tiny to me, so she must have been pretty small.” [85] McDermott’s parents encouraged her to further her education and she completed high school in Portage la Prairie and went on to normal school in Winnipeg. In 1886, at the age of 16 she had her first teaching job in a Kindergarten to Grade 8 rural school in Dundonald, Manitoba.

A Portage district history book explains how Jessie encountered her husband. While a teacher, she met Robert McDermott, “a prominent citizen of the Rural Municipality of Portage la Prairie,” and “a gentleman who served as reeve (1923-1925), the chief magistrate for the district.” [86] Robert McDermott had panned for gold in the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. Two years later he returned with enough gold for an engagement ring (now in the possession of Shirriff) and he and Jessie were married. The McDermotts settled in the community of Edwin and their homestead was called Bellemeade in honour of Jessie McDermott’s middle name, Isabel or Belle. Jessie no longer taught formally, as this was not an option for married women at that time. About 1900, she had one story published in the Nor-West Farmer for which she received $10. The booklet of stories, Tales from Bellemeade [87] followed four years later. This information seems to lend support to the idea that Jessie did the majority of her writing before she had any children, between the ages of 30 to 34 years, and immediately after leaving the teaching profession when she married.

The McDermotts had three children. In 1905, at the age of 35 years, McDermott bore her first child, Winifred, who had a shortage of oxygen at birth, never spoke, and suffered from many seizures. [88] Jessie was concerned for the girl’s safety during these seizures and created a special room for her with thick straw under a carpet. The second child, daughter Frances Isabel was born in 1907 and became a nurse. Hugh, their only son, was born in 1913, may have had learning problems, farmed close by, and never married. Jessie McDermott was 43 years old when she bore Hugh.

As Winifred grew, the child needed more and more attention to clothe and feed and protect her from injury. When Winifred was moved into the Manor in Portage la Prairie for special care, this seemed almost a failure to McDermott on her part. Winifred died of pneumonia at eighteen years of age. The death of Winifred occurred when Robert McDermott served as Reeve and his wife was fifty-three years old. Jessie McDermott’s determination and strength of character allowed her to meet many challenges during her lifetime: a prairie fire; living with ten siblings; leaving the family farm to attend normal school in the city of Winnipeg; beginning to teach at sixteen years of age; caring for one handicapped child; home schooling her daughter (Frances) who developed diphtheria; and supporting a spouse who was a politician. [89]

There were two key interests in Jessie McDermott’s life: her strong Christian beliefs and her love for teaching. She dedicated herself to youth work and to caring for those who needed additional support. She led by example. [90] Today we would say that Jessie “walked her talk.” W. Shirriff wrote “Grandma was highly successful where she taught and she had high standards for her self and thus people tended to live up to the high standard she asked of them.” [91] A handwritten story by W. Shirriff describes McDermott, “the teacher”, and her “hands on” teaching methodology in 1915:

When my mother was 8 years old she contracted diphtheria and was very ill. Eventually she recovered, but she took her schooling at home for quite a while. Two stories about this—Grandma was teaching the tropic of Cancer & the Tropic of Capricorn. She took 2 books—the smaller Cancer (6 letters) the larger Capricorn (9 letters) and asked Mom to pile the books. Naturally, Mom put the larger on the bottom. Grandma affirmed that, and said “Now you can have a way to remember it.” [92]

On Sundays, Jessie McDermott, a staunch Presbyterian, would permit her children only to play the piano, go for a walk, or read the Bible. Shirriff remembers McDermott’s guidance and influence to always read the Bible and say her prayers. It seems likely that McDermott was influenced by the Social Gospel, described earlier by Gerald Friesen, [93] and by Alison Prentice et al.,

Women were particularly active in the Protestant Social Gospel movement at the turn of the century, a movement which links to earlier evangelicalism and devoted to the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth and thus to the reform of the temporal world. To work for social reform seemed to the women in the movement a logical extension of their maternalism. [94]

Jessie McDermott was a good musician and valued education. She taught her son, Hugh, and daughter, Frances, to play the piano. Jessie’s school Christmas Concerts were always highly successful, well attended and supported by the local community. One might say Jessie McDermott was a visionary, or even ahead of her time. She allowed and encouraged her daughter, Frances, to go away from Bellemeade to Portage la Prairie, to attend school. And further, Jessie allowed her daughter to do something courageous and unique: travel to Montreal for a year to become a nurse. Montreal was a long distance from Manitoba. At that time, about 1924, the trip from Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, to Montreal, Quebec of 1,516 miles (one way) took approximately four days by train. W. Shirriff wrote that her grandmother “was witty, feisty, was strict, and was like a saint to her, yet, was open to new experiences.” [95] All this suggests Jessie McDermott as a progressive female thinker, who wanted to present her daughter with an opportunity to receive a post-secondary education and training outside of Manitoba, in a province (Quebec) of a different culture and language. Jessie’s action provided Frances with a bigger window on the world and a chance to expand her daughter’s awareness and understanding of people.

Although McDermott was a Presbyterian for many years, she eventually became a member of the United Church and Mary Kinnear notes “The Presbyterians and Methodists joined together in the United Church, which dominated the southwest part of the province,” [96] possibly the Portage la Prairie area. McDermott was considered politically astute, liberal by persuasion, and also a member of the Women’s Missionary Society.

In 1917, after appearing before the Gladstone School Trustees, Jessie McDermott was refused permission by the all-male school board to lead Mission Band in local schools. Because there were few churches in the surrounding locations, McDermott wanted to see the schools used for mission meetings because the schools were accessible to every child. Upon refusal of her request, and with awareness and understanding for provincial education, Jessie tenaciously and patiently scoured the Manitoba Public Schools Act and discovered that if requested, religious education could be conducted for one hour per month in the school building. Later in 1917, Jessie McDermott received approval in Gladstone, Manitoba, to introduce Mission Bands to that area. She drove many miles with horse and buggy to encourage interest in these missionary groups and to gain community support. Jessie knew what she had to do and she did it. The Mission Band initiative proceeded successfully.

A bumper crop. Jessie McDermott (right) inspects her family’s 1915 crop of Marquis wheat that yielded an impressive 56½ bushels per acre. With her (left to right) are cousin Joe Holland, sister Daisy McDermott Maxwell, and daughter Frances McDermott, age 8.
Source: Wilma Shirriff.

In 1917, the McDermotts established a Community Club for young people at Edwin that offered debating and activities to support the war effort. Jessie believed that people should use the talents for the benefit of others. [97] F. McDermott wrote about her mother’s community service:

Young people were the apple of her eye. She would give time & effort to all activities concerning young people. She was on the executive of the Portage Presbyterial (1917) and with that backing mother came home from a Presbyterial meeting in Gladstone & began to work. Baby Bands and Mission Bands were in their infancy & mother spent hours on the telephone stirring up interest in Mission Bands.” She wanted to call the Edwin Mission Band “The Joyful Gleaners.” [98]

Jessie McDermott lived an active life on Bellemeade, until her husband died in 1947 at the age of 80, a day after he came in from working with horses in the field. Then, it seems Jessie lost her will to live, and she died two years later. The local newspaper in Portage la Prairie, Daily Graphic, noted Jessie’s death on 1 November 1950 and documented her community service. [99]

Jessie McDermott was described by her granddaughter as “a feminist who felt women could do anything they wanted, and that if you wanted something to happen, you did it. That’s just what she did. She was an equal opportunity person.” [100] The following plain story reinforces the tenacity, commitment, and stewardship that permeated Jessie McDermott’s life.

One time my granddad came back and he had a tree. Grandma wanted it planted in a certain place. Granddad said it would not grow in that specific place. Grandma Jessie would go out everyday and give it a pail of water. She made up her mind it would grow and it became the centerpiece of the property, a huge, bushy, tree. [101]


The typical model for leadership during the lifetimes of Scott, Benedictsson, and McDermott was hierarchical (top down power) and male dominated (patriarchal). The cultural expectation for middle-class women was one of maintaining the home, bearing children, and supporting a spouse as he earned a living. A woman could serve outside the home, in the church as missionary, as a nurse to the sick, as a volunteer with the poor and needy, or as a classroom teacher. It was through their service and moral commitment to the common good, that Scott, Benedictsson, and McDermott demonstrated many of the characteristics associated with the concept of servant-leadership: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualizations, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of others, and building community. [102] These three women are reflective of the indomitable spirit of many pioneer women in Manitoba and their commitment to serve, as well as to lead. Regardless of their particular circumstances, Scott, Benedictsson, and McDermott were servant-leaders. I believe that simply by being willing to respond to the needs of their communities, through their leadership and service, these women continued to grow personally. Their relentless contribution of time and energy working with and on behalf of the poor, the least privileged in society, while encouraging equality of the sexes, the right to vote, opportunities to grow and learn, the fostering of better health care and social conditions in this province, reflect a generous ethic of care. Through their stewardship to communities in Manitoba these three women servantleaders acted as catalysts for change. Indeed, their stories support Healy’s opinion, that if told, they would provide interest and inspiration for future generations. [103]


1. Healy, William, Women of Red River: Being a Book Written from the Recollections of Women Surviving from the Red River Era. Winnipeg: Peguis Publishers, 1923, p. 260.

2. Healy, Women of Red River, p. 23.

3. Armstrong, Colleen, ed., Extraordinary Ordinary Women: Manitoba Women and Their Stories. Winnipeg: Manitoba Clubs of the Canadian Federation of University Women, 2002.

4. Bumsted, John M., Dictionary of Manitoba Biography. Winnipeg: The University of Manitoba Press, 1999, pp. viii, 21, 188, 223, 224.

5. DeGraves, Diane, “Margaret Scott”. In Armstrong, ed., Extraordinary Ordinary Women, pp. 65-66, 93-94.

6. Johnson, Sigrid, “Margret Benedictsson, Freyja and the Struggle for Women’s Equality.” The Icelandic Canadian, 1994, Spring, pp. 117-127.

7. Kinnear, Mary, “The Icelandic Connection: Freyja and the Manitoba Women Suffrage Movement.” Canadian Women Studies, 1987, vol. 7, no. 4, pp. 25 - 28.

8. Kinnear, Mary, A Female Economy: Women’s Work in a Prairie Province 1870-1970. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1998, pp. xii, 5-31, 52-63, 111-143.

9. Kristjanson, Wilhelm, The Icelandic People in Manitoba. Winnipeg: Wallingford Press, 1965, pp. 372-375.

10. Macvicar, Helena, Margaret Scott: A Tribute. The Margaret Scott Nursing Mission. Winnipeg: Provincial Archives of Manitoba. c. 1939: MG10 B9, pp. 1-28.

11. Prentice, Alison, Paula Bourne, Gail Cuthbert Brandt, Beth Light, Wendy Mitchison, and Naomi Black, Canadian Women: A History (2nd ed.) Toronto, Ontario: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1996, pp. 74-176, 190-236.

12. Shirriff, Wilma, “Jessie Isabel McDermott.” In Armstrong, ed., Extraordinary Ordinary Women.

13. Skulason, H., “The Battle of the Sexes.” An address delivered on 12 April 1975 at the Annual Icelandic Canadian Banquet and Dance, Icelandic Canadian 1975, Winter, pp. 42-45.

14. Thor, Jonas, Icelanders in North America: The First Settlers. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2002, pp. 85-86, 185, 260-261.

15. Treble, Annette, “Margret J. Benedictsson.” In Armstrong, ed., Extraordinary Ordinary Women, pp. 77-78, 94- 95.

16. Greenleaf, Robert, The Servant as Leader. Indianapolis: The Robert K. Greenleaf Center, 1970/1991.

17. Ibid., pp. 1-37.

18. Ibid., p. 7.

19. Adams, Lynn, History Trail: Victorian Britain. January, 2001, (30 November 2002).

20. Friesen, Gerald, The Canadian Prairies: A History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987, p. 350.

21. Paterson, E., “It Happened Here: Margaret Scott Devotes Life to Winnipeg’s Needy”. Winnipeg Free Press, 18 January 1975, p. 5.

22. Winnipeg Tribune, “Margaret Scott, City’s Angel of Mercy, Dies After Lingering Illness.” 3 August 1931, p. 1.

23. Winnipeg Free Press, “Benefactress Dead: Death Calls Friend of Poor and Needy.” 3 August 1931, p. A1.

24. Winnipeg Tribune, “Margaret Scott Nursing Mission Builds Character Among Poor of Winnipeg.” 13 June 1931, p. 6.

25. Paterson, It Happened Here, p. 5.

26. Winnipeg Tribune, “Margaret Scott Nursing Mission Builds Character”, p. 6.

27. Macvicar, Margaret Scott: A Tribute, pp. 7-8.

28. Ibid., p. 8.

29. Winnipeg Tribune, “Margaret Scott Nursing Mission Builds Character”, p. 6.

30. Macvicar, Margaret Scott: A Tribute, p. 9.

31. Paterson, E., “Our Picturesque Past.” Winnipeg Free Press, 25 January 1975, p. 22.

32. Winnipeg Free Press, “Benefactress Dead”. p. 1.

33. Macvicar, Margaret Scott: A Tribute, p. 9.

34. Winnipeg Free Press, “The Mission That Never Asked a Dime.” 14 March 1964, p. 21.

35. Archives of Manitoba, MG10 B9.

36. Winnipeg Tribune, “Margaret Scott Nursing Mission Builds Character,” p. 6.

37. Archives of Manitoba, MG10 B9.

38. Saturday Night, “Canadian Women in the Public Eye: Margaret Scott.” 4 June 1921, p. 29.

39. Archives of Manitoba. MG10 B9.

40. Paterson, “Our Picturesque Past”, p. 22.

41. Saturday Night, “Canadian Women in the Public Eye: Margaret Scott,” p. 29.

42. Ibid.

43. DeGraves, in Armstrong (ed), Extraordinary Ordinary Women, pp. 65-66.

44. Winnipeg Tribune, “City Mourns Memory of Mrs. Margaret Scott.” 5 August 1931, p. 5.

45. Winnipeg Free Press, “The Saint of Poverty Row.” 3 August 1931, p. 9.

46. Winnipeg Tribune, “Margaret Scott, City’s Angel of Mercy, Dies”, p. 1.

47. “Florence Nightingale of Winnipeg: Story of Mrs. Margaret Scott and her Labour of Great Love” (n.d.): Archives of Manitoba. MG10 B9.

48. Saturday Night, “Canadian Women in the Public Eye: Margaret Scott,”p. 29.

49. Winnipeg Tribune, “Margaret Scott, City’s Angel of Mercy, Dies,” p. 1.

50. Miller, T., “Margaret Scott: The Angel of Poverty Row.” In Framing Our Past, Winnipeg: Legislative Library of Manitoba, 2001, p. 287.

51. Ducas, Ada, and Janice Linton, “Women Working for Healthy Communities.” October, 2001,, 29 May 2003.

52. Wolf, K. ed., Writings by Western Icelandic Women. Winnipeg: The University of Manitoba Press, 1996, pp. 7-8.

53. Prentice, et al., Canadian Women.

54. Ibid., 205.

55. Treble, in Armstrong, ed., Extraordinary Ordinary Women, p. 77.

56. Wolf, Writings by Western Icelandic Women, p. 73.

57. Kristjanson, The Icelandic People in Manitoba, p. 372.

58. Johnson, “Margret Benedictsson…,” p. 122.

59. Kinnear, Mary, Daughters of Time: Women in the Western Tradition, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1982, p. 176.

60. Thor, Icelanders in North America, p. 94.

61. Bumsted, Dictionary of Manitoba Biography, p. 21.

62. Lindal, W., Icelanders in Canada. Winnipeg: Viking Printers, 1967, pp. 160-161.

63. Wolf, Writings by Western Icelandic Women, p. 9.

64. Ibid., p. 10.

65. Unitarian Church Website,, 4 January 2004 and, 4 January 2004.

66. Johnson, “Margret Benedictsson…,” p. 121.

67. Wolf, Writings by Western Icelandic Women, p. 9.

68. Thor, Icelanders in North America, p. 261.

69. Wolf, Writings by Western Icelandic Women, p. 9.

70. Kristjanson, The Icelandic People in Manitoba, p. 372; see also Skulason, “Battle of the Sexes,” p. 44.

71. Kristjanson, The Icelandic People in Manitoba, p. 373.

72. Wolf, Writings by Western Icelandic Women, p. 74.

73. Kristjanson, The Icelandic People in Manitoba, p. 373.

74. Kinnear, “The Icelandic Connection,” p. 26.

75. Johnson, “Margret Benedictsson…,” p. 124, see also: Prentice, et al., Canadian Women, p. 206.

76. Wolf, Writings by Western Icelandic Women, p. 23.

77. Kinnear, A Female Economy, p. 17.

78. Ibid., p. 68.

79. Wolf, Writings by Western Icelandic Women, p. 73.

80. Thor, Icelanders in North America, p. 261.

81. Kristjanson, The Icelandic People in Manitoba, p. 375.

82. Kinnear, Daughters of Time, p. 133.

83. Patterson, G. (ed.), Beside the Burn: Burnside Area History. Burnside Historical Committee, 1989, p. 132.

84. Ibid.

85. Shirriff, W., personal communication, 24 January 2003.

86. Collier, A., A History of Portage la Prairie and Surrounding District. Altona: D. W. Friesen & Sons, n.d., pp. 46, 304.

87. McDermott, Isabel, Tales from Bellemeade, Portage la Prairie, self-published, circa 1904.

88. Shirriff, personal communication, 24 January 2003.

89. Ibid.

90. Shirriff, In Armstrong ed., Extraordinary Ordinary Women, p. 5.

91. Shirriff, personal communication, 24 January 2003.

92. Ibid.

93. Friesen, The Canadian Prairies: A History.

94. Prentice, et al., Canadian Women: A History, p. 164.

95. Shirriff, personal communication, 24 January 2003.

96. Kinnear, A Female Economy, p. 17.

97. Shirriff, In Armstrong ed., Extraordinary Ordinary Women, p. 6.

98. McDermott, F., personal communication, 24 January 2003.

99. Portage Daily Graphic “Here Since 1871. Mrs. Jessie McDermott, 80, Dies After Long Community Service” 2 November 1950, p. 4.

100. Shirriff, personal communication, 24 January 2003.

101. Ibid.

102. Greenleaf, The Servant as Leader, pp. 1-37.

103. Healy, Women of Red River, p. 260.

Page revised: 11 September 2016